Maurice Guest, by Henry Handel Richardson

II.

On the afternoon when Maurice found that Madeleine had kept her word he went home and paced his room in perplexity. He pictured Louise lying helpless, too weak to raise her hand. His brain went stupidly over the few people to whom he might turn for aid. Avery Hill? — Johanna Cayhill? But Avery was occupied with her own troubles; and Johanna’s relationship to Ephie put her out of the question. He was thinking fantastic thoughts of somehow offering his own services, or of even throwing himself on the goodness of a person like Miss Jensen, whose motherly form must surely imply a corresponding motherliness of heart, when Frau. Krause entered the room, bearing a letter which she said had been left for him an hour or two previously. She carried a lamp in her hand, and eyed her restless lodger with suspicion.

“Why, in the name of goodness, didn’t you bring this in when it came?” he demanded. He held the unopened letter at arm’s length, as if he were afraid of it.

Frau Krause bridled instantly. Did he think she had nothing else to do than to carry things in and out of his room? The letter had lain on the chest of drawers in the passage; he could have seen it for himself, had he troubled to look.

Maurice waved her away. He was staring at the envelope; he believed he knew the handwriting. His heart beat with precise hammerings. He laid the letter on the table, and took a few turns in the room before he picked it up again. On examining it anew, it seemed to him that the lightly gummed envelope had been tampered with, and he made a threatening movement towards the door, then checked himself, remembering that if the letter were what he believed, it would be written in English. He tore it open, destroying the envelope in his nervousness. There was no heading, and it was only a few lines long.

I MUST SPEAK TO YOU. WILL YOU COME TO ME THIS EVENING? LOUISE DUFRAYER.

His heart was thumping now. He was to go to her, she said so herself; to go this moment, for it was evening already. As it was, she was perhaps waiting for him, wondering why he did not come. He had not shaved that day, and his first impulse was to call for hot water. In the same breath he gave up the idea: it was out of the question by the poor light of the lamp, and the extraordinary position of the looking-glass. He made, however, a hasty toilet in his best, only to colour at himself when finished. Was there ever such a fool as he? His act contained the germ of an insult: and he rapidly changed back to his workaday wear.

All this took time, and it was eight o’clock before he rang the door-bell in the BRUDERSTRASSE. Now, the landlady did not mistake him for a possible thief. But she looked at him in an unfriendly way, and said grumblingly that Fraulein had been expecting him for an hour or more. Then she pointed to the door of the room, and left him to make his way in alone.

He knocked gently, but no one answered. The old woman, who stood watching his movements, signed to him to enter, and he turned the handle. The large room was dark, except for the light shed by a small lamp, which stood on the table before the sofa. From somewhere out of the dusk that lay beyond, a white figure rose and came towards him.

Louise was in a crumpled dressing-gown, and her hair was loosened from its coil on her neck. Maurice saw so much, before she was close beside him, her eyes searching his face.

“Oh, you have come,” she said with a sigh, as if a load had been lifted from her mind. “I thought you were not coming.”

“I only got your note a few minutes ago. I . . . I came at once,” he said, and stammered, as he saw how greatly illness had changed her.

“I knew you would.”

She did not give him her hand, but stood gazing at him; and her look was so helpless and forlorn that he grew uncomfortable.

“You have been ill?” he said, to render the pause that followed less embarrassing.

“Yes; but I’m better now.” She supported herself on the table; her indecision seemed to increase, and several seconds passed before she said: “Won’t you sit down?”

He took one of the stuffed arm-chairs she indicated; and she went back to the sofa. Again there was silence. With her elbows on her knees, her chin on her two hands, Louise stared hard at the pattern of the tablecloth. Maurice sat stiff and erect, waiting for her to tell him why she had summoned him.

“You will think it strange that I should send for you like this . . . when I know you so slightly,” she began at length. “But . . .since I saw you last . . . I have been in trouble,”— her voice broke, but her eyes remained fixed on the cloth. “And I am quite alone. I have no one to help me. Then I thought of you; you were kind to me once; you offered to help me.” She paused, and wound her handkerchief to a ball.

“Anything! — anything that lies in my power,” said Maurice fervently. He fidgeted his hands round the brim of his hat, which he was holding to him.

“Won’t you tell me what it is?” he asked, after another long break. “I should be so glad, and grateful — yes, indeed, grateful — if there were anything I could do for you.”

She met his eyes, and tried to say something, but no sound came over her lips. She was trying to fasten her thoughts on what she had to say, but, in spite of her efforts, they eluded her. For more than twenty-four hours she had brooded over one idea; the strain had been too great; and, now that the moment had come, her strength deserted her. She would have liked to lay her head on her arms and sleep; it almost seemed to her now, in the indifference of sheer fatigue, that it did not matter whether she spoke or not. But as she looked at the young man, she became conscious of an expression in his face, which made her own grow hard.

“I won’t be pitied.”

Maurice turned very red. His heart had gone out to her in her distress; and his feelings were painted on his face. His discomfiture at her discovery was so palpable that it gave her courage to go on.

“You were one of those, were you not, who were present at a certain cafe in the BRUHL, one evening, three weeks ago.” It was more of a statement than a question. Her eyes held him fast. His retreating colour rose again; he had a presentiment of what was coming.

“Then you must have heard ——” she began quickly, but left the sentence unended.

His suspicions took shape, and he made a large, vague gesture of dissent. “You heard all that was said,” she continued, without paying any heed to him. “You heard how . . . how some one — no, how the man I loved and trusted . . . how he boasted about my caring for him; and not only that, but how, before that drunken crowd, he told how I had been to him . . . to his room . . . that afternoon ——” She could not finish, and pressed her knotted handkerchief to her lips.

Maurice looked round him for assistance. “You are mistaken,” he declared. “I heard nothing of the kind. Remember, I, too, was among those . . . in the state you mention,” he added as an afterthought, lowering his voice.

“That is not it.” Leaning forward, she opened her eyes so wide that he saw a rim of white round the brown of the pupils. “You must also have heard . . . how, all this time, behind my back, there was some one else . . . someone he cared for . . . when I thought it was only me.”

The young man coloured, with her and for her. “It is not true; you have been misled,” he said with vehemence. And, again, a flash of intuition suggested an afterthought to him. “Can you really believe it? Don’t you think better of him than that?”

For the first time since she had known him, Louise gave him a personal look, a look that belonged to him alone, and held a warm ray of gratitude. Then, however, she went on unsparingly: “I want you to tell me who it was.”

He laid his hat on a chair, and used his hands. “But if I assure you it is not true? If I give you my word that you have been misinformed?”

“Who was it? What is her name?”

He rose, and went away from the table.

“I knew him better than you,” she said slowly, as he did not speak: “you or anyone else — a hundred thousand times better — and I KNOW it is true.”

Still he did not answer. “Then you won’t tell me?”

“Tell you? How can I? There’s nothing to tell.”

“I was wrong then. You have no pity for me?”

“Pity! — I no pity?” he cried, forgetting how, a minute ago, she had resented his feeling it. “But all the same I can’t tell you what you ask me. You don’t realise what it means: putting a slur on a young girl’s name . . . which has never been touched.”

Directly he had said this, he was aware of his foolishness; but she let the admission contained in the words pass unnoticed.

“Then she is not with him?” she cried, springing to her feet, and there was a jubilation in her voice, which she did not attempt to suppress. Maurice made no answer, but in his face was such a mixture of surprise and disconcertion that it was answer enough.

She remained standing, with her head bowed; and Maurice, who, in his nervousness, had gripped the back of his chair, held it so tightly that it left a furrow in his hand. He was looking into the lamp, and did not at first see that Louise had raised her head again and was contemplating him. When she had succeeded in making him look at her, she sat down on the sofa and drew the folds of her dressing-gown to her.

“Come and sit here. I want to speak to you.”

But Maurice only shot a quick glance at her, and did not move.

She leaned forward, in her old position. She had pushed the heavy wings of hair up from her forehead, and this, together with her extreme pallor, gave her face a look of febrile intensity.

“Maurice Guest,” she said slowly, “do you remember a night last summer, when, by chance, you happened to walk with me, coming home from the theatre? — Or have you perhaps forgotten?”

He shook his head.

“Then do you remember, too, what you said to me? How, since the first time you had seen me — you even knew where that was, I believe — you had thought about me . . . thought too much, or words to that effect. Do you remember?”

“Do you think when a man says a thing like that he forgets it? “asked Maurice in a gruff voice. He turned, as he spoke, and looked down on her with a kind of pitying wisdom. “If you knew how often I have reproached myself for it!” he added.

“There was no need for that,” she answered, and even smiled a little. “We women never resent having such things said to us — never — though it is supposed we do, and though we must pretend to. But I remember, too, I was in a bad mood that night, and was angry with you, after all. Everything seemed to have gone against me. In the theatre — in . . . Oh, no, no!” she cried, as she remembrance of that past night, with its alternations of pain and pleasure, broke over her. “My God!”

Maurice hardly breathed, for fear he should remind her of his presence. When the paroxysm had passed, she crossed to the window; the blinds had not been drawn, and leaning her forehead on the glass, she looked out into the darkness. In spite of his trouble of mind, the young man could not but comment on the ironic fashion in which fate was treating him: not once, in all the hours he had spent on the pavement below, had Louise come, like this, to the window; now that she did so, he was in the room beside her, wishing himself away.

Then, with a swift movement, she came back to him, and stood at his side.

“Then it was not true? — what you said that night.”

“True?” echoed Maurice. He instinctively moved a step away from her, and threw a quick glance at the pale face so near his own. “If I were to tell you how much more than that is true, you wouldn’t have anything more to do with me.”

For the second time, she seemed to see him and consider him. But he kept his head turned stubbornly away.

“You feel like that,” she began in slow surprise, to continue hurriedly: “You care for me like that, and yet, when I ask the first and only thing I shall ever ask of you, you won’t do it? It is a lesson to me, I suppose, not to come to you for help again. — Oh, I can’t understand you men! You are all — all alike.”

“I would do anything in the world for you. Anything but this.”

She repeated his last words after him. “But I want nothing else.”

“This I can’t tell you.”

“Then you don’t really care. You only think you do. If you can’t do this one small thing for me! Oh, there is no one else I can turn to, or I would. Oh, please tell me! — you who make-believe to care for me. You won’t? When it comes to the point, a man will do nothing — nothing at all.”

“I would cut off my hands for you. But you are asking me to do something I think wrong.”

“Wrong! What is wrong? — and what is right? They are only words. Is it right that I should be left like this? — thrown away like a broken plate? Oh, I shall not rest till I know who it was that took him from me. And you are the only person who can help me. Are you not a little sorry for me? Is there nothing I can do to make you sorry?”

“You won’t realise what you are asking me to do.”

He spoke in a constrained voice, for he felt the impossiblity of standing out much longer against her. Louise caught the note of yielding, and taking his hand in hers, laid it against her forehead.

“Feel that! Feel how it throbs and burns! And so it has gone on for hours now, for days. I can’t think or feel — with that fever in me. I must know who it was, or I shall go mad. Don’t torture me then — you, too! You are good. Be kind to me now. Be my friend, Maurice Guest.”

Maurice was vanquished; in a low voice he told her what she wished to hear. She read the syllables from his lips, repeated the name slowly after him, then shook her head; she did not know it. Letting his hand drop, she went back to the sofa.

“Tell me everything you know about her,” she said imperiously. “What is she like? — what is she like? What is the colour of her hair?”

Maurice was a poor hand at description. Questioned thus, he was not even sure whether to call Ephie pretty or not; he knew that she was small, and very young, but of her hair he could say little, except that it was not black.

Louise caught at the detail. “Not black, no, not black!” she cried. “He had black enough here,” and she ran her hands through her own unruly hair.

There was nothing she did not want to know, did not try to force from his lips; and a relentless impatience seized her at his powerlessness.

“I must see her for myself,” she said at length, when he had stammered into silence. “You must bring her to me.”

“No, that you really can’t ask me to do.”

She came over to him again, and took his hands. “You will bring her here to-morrow — to-morrow afternoon. Do you think I shall hurt her? Is she any better than I am? Oh, don’t be afraid! We are not so easily soiled.”

Maurice demurred no more.

“For until I see her, I shall not know — I shall not know,” she said to herself, when he had pledged his word.

The tense expression of her face relaxed; her mouth drooped; she lay back in the sofa-corner and shut her eyes. For what seemed a long time, there was no sound in the room. Maurice thought she had fallen asleep. But at his first light movement she opened her eyes.

“Now go,” she said. “Please, go!” And he obeyed.

The night was cold, but, as he stood irresolute in the street, he wiped the perspiration from his forehead. He felt very perplexed. Only one thing was clear to him: he had promised to bring Ephie to see her the next day, and, however wrong it might be, the promise was given and must be kept. But what he now asked himself was: did not the bringing of the child, under these circumstances, imply a tacit acknowledgment that she was seriously involved? — a fact which, all along, he had striven against admitting. For, after his one encounter with Ephie and Schilsky, in the woods that summer, and the first firing of his suspicions, he had seen nothing else to render him uneasy; a few weeks later, Ephie had gone to Switzerland, and, on her return in September, or almost directly afterwards — three or four days at most — Schilsky had taken his departure. There had been, of course, his drunken boasts to take into account, but firstly, Maurice had only retained a hazy idea of their nature, and, in the next place, the events which had followed that evening had been of so much greater importance to him that he had had no thoughts to spare for Ephie — more especially as he then knew that Schilsky was out of the way. But now the whole affair rose vividly before his mind again, and in his heart he knew that he had always believed — just as Louise believed — in Ephie’s guilt. No: guilt was too strong a word. Yet however harmless the flirtation might have been in itself, it had been carried on in secret, in an underhand way: there had been nothing straightforward or above-board about it; and this alone was enough to compromise a young girl.

The Cayhills had been in Leipzig again for three weeks, but so occupied had Maurice been during this time, that he had only paid them one hasty call. Now he felt that he must see Ephie at once, not only to secure her word that she would come out with him, the following day, but also to read from her frank eyes and childish lips the assurance of her innocence, or, at least, the impossibility of her guilt.

But as he walked to the LESSINGSTRASSE, he remembered, without being able to help it, all the trifles which, at one time or another, had disturbed his relations with Ephie. He recalled each of the thin, superficial untruths, by means of which she had defended herself, the day he had met her with Schilsky: it seemed incredible to him now that he had not seen through them instantly. He called up her pretty, insincere behaviour with the circle of young men that gathered round her; the language of signs by which she had conversed with Schilsky in the theatre. He remembered the astounding ease with which he had made her acquaintance in the first case, or rather, with which she had made his. Even the innocent kiss she had once openly incited him to, and on the score of which she had been so exaggeratedly angry — this, too, was summoned to bear witness against her. Each of these incidents now seemed to point to a fatal frivolity, to a levity of character which, put to a real test, would offer no resistance.

Supper was over in the PENSION, but only Mrs. Cayhill sat in her accustomed corner. Ephie was with the rest of the boarders in the general sitting-room, where Johanna conducted Maurice. Boehmer was paying an evening visit, as well as a very young American, who laughed: “Heh, heh!” at everything that was said, thereby displaying two prominently gold teeth. Mrs. Tully sat on a small sofa, with her arm round Ephie’s waist: they were the centre of the group, and it did not appear likely that Maurice would get an opportunity of speaking to Ephie in private. She was in high spirits, and had only a saucy greeting for him. He sat down beside Johanna, and waited, ill at ease. Soon his patience was exhausted; rising, he went over to the sofa, and asked Ephie if he might come to take her for a walk, the next afternoon. But she would not give him an express promise; she pouted: after all these weeks, it suddenly occurred to him to come and see them, and then, the first thing he did, was to ask a favour of her. Did he really expect her to grant it?

“Don’t, Ephie, love, don’t!” cried Mrs. Tully in her sprightly way. “Men are really shocking creatures, and it is our duty, love, to keep them in their place. If we don’t, they grow presumptuous,” and she shot an arch look at Boehmer, who returned it, fingered his beard, and murmured: “Cruel — cruel!”

“And even if I wanted to go when the time came, how do you expect me to know so long beforehand? Ever so many things may happen before to-morrow,” said Ephie brilliantly; at which Mrs. Tully laughed very much indeed, and still more at Boehmer’s remark that it was an ancient privilege of the ladies, never to be obliged to know their own minds.

“It’s a libel — take that, you naughty boy!” she cried, and slapped him playfully on the hand. “Ephie, love, how shall we punish him?”

“He is not to come again for a week,” answered Ephie slily; and at Boehmer’s protestations of penitence and despair, both she and Mrs. Tully laughed till the tears stood in their eyes, Ephie all the more extravagantly because Maurice stood unsmiling before her.

“I ask this as a direct favour, Ephie. There’s something I want to say to you — something important,” he added in a low voice, so that only she could hear it.

Ephie changed colour at once, and tried to read his face.

“Then I may come at five? You will be ready? Good night.”

Johanna followed him into the passage, and stood by while he put on his coat. They had used up all their small talk in the sitting-room, and had nothing more to say to each other. When however they shook hands, she observed impulsively: “Sometimes I wish we were safe back home again.” But Maurice only said: “Indeed?” and displayed no curiosity to know the reason why.

After he had gone, Ephie was livelier than before, as long as she was being teased about her pale, importunate admirer. Then, suddenly, she pleaded a headache, and went to her own room.

Johanna, listening outside the door, concluded from the stillness that her sister was asleep. But Ephie heard Johanna come and go. She could not sleep, nor could she get Maurice’s words out of her mind. He had something important to say to her. What could it be? There was only one important subject in the world for her now; and she longed for the hour of his visit — longed, hoped, and was more than half afraid.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33